Though products of our country and of our generation,
in the search for identities and lasting vocations
we five Midwesterners commerced in wares
of all kinds of different origins and implications:
Tom did his ecstatic Aretha Franklin imitations,
and of Earl “the Pearl” Monroe twisting in the air;
Fred took me through the steps of Gödel’s Theorem,
became the nation’s proto-hacker ante litteram;
Kerry brooded through the plays of Harold Pinter,
one of the first persons west of the Mississippi
to have heard of him; while Scott, rather more simply,
invoked Martin Luther King and Gandhi to kill the winter.
I counted myself an American then and will continue
to do so as long as I live, even if it would be more true
to describe me as an odd hybrid with solid roots
both in Europe and in the States, who will spare the reader
the tedious account of his commuting across the seas.
Not being one of those animals who only eats roots
shoots and leaves (though there be many of those too
on both continents), old-world refinements proved
effective in gaining me the esteem of my pals.
There is an epigram I had discovered in Proust
that boosted my credit as a wit in the group
and still, to this very day, has me baffled:
“To hope without hope, which would be wise, is impossible.”—
ominous words, as might have come straight from the Sybil
and point to the tragic sense of the stories
of the likes of us with no choice but to follow
our tastes in a world ever harder to swallow.
Back in those years, however, the future looked rosy
compared to today. Gandhi, Hammarskjöld (whose Markings
had deeply scored me), JFK—all had vanished darkly;
and the reverend King with Robert Kennedy one famous spring
followed suit; but Allende had not even been elected yet,
nor had the pope stood on the balcony alongside Pinochet.
Indeed, what I have always found truly troubling
are not so much the blows dealt to due process per se,
as the punctually mushy, circumstantial reactions of persons
of so-called learning to the most dire watersheds:
veritable non sequiturs that the schizoid media
mirror but originate in the basic schizo-phrenia
of the middle-class, trapped in between the quick and the dead.
At this point, I wish I could say “But I digress!”
and go off on an actual tangent, leave unaddressed
the tricky question of socio-cultural extraction.
For we ourselves were all middle-class kids,
subject to the same conflicts of interest and victims
of the same divided conscience as the next man;
so how to explain the origin of the specificities
that formed the basis of our elected affinities
without referring to those very parents
whom we were supposed to be rebelling against
but who, in reality, had just begun to exert their influence
through us, via our own behavioral patterns?
Probably the deepest parentally-induced trait
that we all had in common was a disdain
for social climbing: a pride of spirit
that prevented us from aspiring to being any richer
in material terms or socially more in the picture
than we already were; and, of course, strongly limited
the likelihood we should ever become “winners”.
In truth, we had always had at our finger-
tips everything that we really needed;
nor were our mothers and fathers determined to make
us into vicarious successes only for the sake
of some old fear or resentment of theirs, with deeds
whose consequences none could predict.
The freedom they fostered was authentic
and, therefore, necessarily structured—
moral integrity, intellectual honesty,
and a fundamentally inclusive bonhomie
surged as triple pillars of our liberal culture.
To stand by these qualities amounts to putting
one’s own interest and that of others on near-equal footing,
a graceful stance which has belonged both to enduring
empires and to the smallest tight-knit sodality.
That we mistook such ingenuousness for normality
speaks thus not only of the more than a few things
we had yet to learn, but also of an ancient
wisdom that flowed unperturbed in the vein,
of the broader framework of civilization
within which we would all meet our fate.
Evening has again fallen in this country place
where Hannibal’s elephants once stationed.
My book tells that if his cause had not been disparaged
by factious oligarchs back at his own Carthage,
he could have taken Rome without any problem.
It just shows to go you, don’t it, how silly
oligarchs will be? And how puerile the vanity
of the society that comes to depend on them.